In response to English Police urging parents to check security settings on family computers, to help keep children safe online when playing games such as Minecraft, I was asked by BBC Radio Scotland, to pop into the studio, and chat over some of the ways you can keep your kids safer online. You can listen to the short radio interview here (starting at 2:47:20), or read below for my notes which hopefully I’ve tidied up to make some sense!
Do parents know what Minecraft is? Can you explain it?
It’s an extremely popular online game, that’s often been described as Virtual Lego… users explore, and indeed build virtual worlds out of various building blocks. You build things up, you knock things down (and you mine underground). You can either play the game on your own… or – as many people choose to do, you can play it in multi-player mode, where you connect to a public Minecraft server, which allows you to build something with other people, and to use the chat feature to actually talk to real people who you’re playing the game with. Hopefully these other people are your friends who you trust, but it can just as easily be a stranger, and there’s no real way of verifying who these people are, or if what they’re saying to you is true. So for younger users… there is of course a risk.
That all said – what I don’t want to do is scare parents into not letting children use Minecraft – it’s a brilliant online resource, which encourages creativity, problem solving, it’s genuinely fun for the youngsters, and used safely – the ability to do all that with your friends, also encourages team work and collaboration, so it’s about the safe usage of Minecraft, and certainly not just disallowing it.
How do we begin to keep children safe online?
Well on Minecraft specifically, For younger users, it’s case of following the age-old advice of “don’t talk to strangers”. It’s as simple as that…
For older ones who actually want to socialise with new contacts and find new friends, be very careful, and cautious of any approach from someone you don’t know.. and advice for everyone – never give away on Minecraft or indeed any online resource any personal details such as your name, age, gender, where you live, your school etc etc. Even if you know you ARE talking to a friend, you can never be too sure who else is watching that information.
If someone asks to talk privately to you, or asks you to come off Minecraft to talk elsewhere – don’t. Keep it on Minecraft, where at least it’s kind of in the public eye, with other people able to see the activity.
For other tools and online systems, it’s about the parents actually educating themselves about the online games that our kids are playing… As you’ve said – do parents really know what Minecraft is, do they know what Club Penguin is, or Moshie Monsters… These are all effectively social networks, dressed up in kid friendly games, and we’ve not even mentioned the bigger well know platforms facebook, instagram, snapchat and so on…
A Report by Nominet 2 years ago, showed that nearly 60% of kids join a social network by the age of ten, but at the same time, only just over 30% of parents felt confident about helping them stay safe. So the first thing to do is educate yourself, what systems are they using, what actually are these systems capable of, and how can I begin to understand the security settings, and features of these systems to better protect them.
How do you get into security settings? Which ones should you be selecting?
Unfortunately, the various settings and security features differ between all the games, they differ between the various platforms, and they differ between what web browser is being used to access the internet, so there’s no definitive list of things you can do…
On Minecraft for example, there’s actually very few settings you can consider, other than to always check your kids are playing in Singleplayer Mode, or if they’re playing it on their games console as opposed to via the website, to check the settings are set to “offline” (not online), or that other players can only join by invitation only.
More generally, you could consider parental controls on the computers themselves, so that youngsters cannot access the internet without approval in the first place, or you could ensure that your internet service provider is blocking sites that are known to not be suitable for a younger audience, and lastly you can take measures directly on popular sites – such as YouTube – where kids love to watch videos of other people playing Minecraft – to turn on “Restricted Mode” (when you’re logged into Youtube, at the bottom of any page, you’ll see that option)which should in theory filter out any non kid-friendly material, or videos with bad language etc.
Other good advice especially if they’re younger children, is to only allow them to access the computer in the Living room with you always nearby, and to perhaps occasionally check internet history – not because you don’t trust them, but to just check that they’ve not been on, or been redirected to any online resources that you’re not happy about. It comes down to good basic internet security and looking out for everyone in the family.
Can you have different passwords for different ages?
No matter what the age – the passwords we use should be strong ones, and so maybe for younger kids, it’s about us helping them choose their passwords, and it’s no bad thing if they need us to help remember it, or to login for them…
How important is it to teach kids about passwords?
In my opinion, Kids should be taught to understand the importance of passwords as soon as they start showing an interest in your mobile phone, or watching you use the internet… they need to grow up knowing that passwords are important, that good passwords help keep them safe, and that they are private things that they need to protect. My 7 year old when he’s got friends round to the house, always asks them to look away when he’s entering in a password, and it’s right that he treats it with that importance…. The truth is – it’s not just kids, we’re all typically bad with passwords, from choosing poor passwords in the first place, to using the same password on multiple websites – we need to get better at it.
But it’s not just passwords.. it’s usernames too.. Good advice to pass on to young people is to NEVER use your actual name as a username… always use a nickname, or better yet – something random that people cannot identify as you, or infer your age, or gender through. Keep it generic, and keep your passwords strong.
Is this the same in all online games?
The problem is that there are so many online games and systems out there that are either targeted at a young audience, or simply appeal to a young audience, some with better safety and privacy measures than others – so again It’s important that parents know and can what games their kids are playing, what apps they’re downloading, and what social networks they’re experimenting with…. so they can test them themselves, checking the settings and the suitability.
What about other social media platforms?
One thing to remember, is that most of the better known social networks have a minimum age limit of 13. However even with that – many parents let younger children create accounts on these platforms. If you’re going to do that, make sure that you have access to these accounts too and check them regularly. The settings on most of these platforms such as Facebook and Instragram etc – they’re not age dependant, so there’s no real extra protection for kids, so yet again it’s important that both they and the adults are well up to speed on how to stay safe online. Parents should have open discussions with kids, no matter how awkward about the real dangers.
Would you say open conversations are just as important as settings?
Absolutely… because the thing is… if other peoples kids are anything like mine – they’ll actually know more than you about settings, and features within the computer, or the game… and indeed many of us give our kids their own tablets and mobile phones depending on their age.. so it’s not always possible to restrict them or keep them safe through the technology alone… and that’s when trust comes into play. I’ll be honest – my wife and I don’t actually use things like strict parental controls to limit the kids online activity – but what we actively do is regularly remind them about the dangers, ensure they understand the best ways to stay safe, encourage them to understand what type of content is ok on line, and what’s not… and trust them to know when to close down a YouTube video because it starts saying bad words, or to ignore requests within games from other kids they don’t know… Most kids today are incredibly techno savvy, so open discussions about all of this is really the best way forward.
Further Advice on Minecraft and helping children stay safe online:
A Parents’ Guide to Minecraft (Webwise)
Staying safe on Minecraft (Parent Info)
Know the Net – Kids Online Survey (Nominet)
Understanding Parental controls (Childnet)
Minecraft facts and figures
Minecraft has a PEGI rating of 7 years old, although you need to be 13 or over to have your own Minecraft account. If you’ve under 13 you’re breaking their terms and conditions – but it’s not illegal.
Over 70 million copies of Minecraft have been sold (with over 23 million purchased for the PC/Mac – making it the best selling game on PCs ever).
There are estimated to be over 100 million Minecraft players, with around 1M playing it at any one time!
Minecraft was bought by Microsoft in 2014 for $2.5Billion
In 2014, Minecraft was the number 2 search term on Youtube.
According to a Minecraftforum.net user survey, 21% of Minecraft users are under 15 years old with the highest percentage of users (43%) being the 15-21 age range.
Stampylonghead (“Stampy”) is the most well known Minecraft YouTuber, uploading videos to his channel on a daily basis. He has over 7M subscribers, and is estimated to be earning anywhere up to £10M a year in advertising revenue.
Other online games popular with younger children:
ClubPenguin.com – With a whopping 28 million users, Disney’s ClubPenguin allows children to create their own colourful penguin ‘avatar’ (character), make friends with other ‘penguins’, play games and take part in lots of other activities. It’s free of charge and designed for children between the ages of 6 and 14.
Moshi Monsters is a website aimed at children aged 6–12 with over 90 million registered users. Users create a pet monster which they name and then look after. They can navigate their way around Monstro City, take daily puzzle challenges to earn ‘Rox’ (a virtual currency), play games, personalize their room and communicate with other users in a fairly safe environment.